I was on the beach in Sidmouth in Devon when it happened, or so my mother told me the other day.
I was only five, and the radio was on. The commentators were relaying the astonishing scenes taking place in Leeds. It was 1981. A sultry summer of discontent was simmering, with race riots across Britain. But that nation was coming to a stand-still. Why? Because of the cricket.
England was two days into a Test match. That’s the kind of cricket that can last for five days. Seriously. England was about to be humiliated. But then came a swashbuckling inning with the bat by the recently sacked captain, Ian ‘Beefy’ Botham. This was followed up by an astonishing performance with the ball by big-haired beanpole Bob Willis, who steamed in to bowl like a man possessed.
It was a remarkable comeback for the England cricket team. But the main reason the nation stopped to watch or listen, and the reason the game is so fondly remembered by the English, at least, is because the opposition was the old cricketing enemy: Australia.
99 years earlier, following an English defeat to an Australian team, The Sporting Times published a mock death notice saying,
“In affectionate remembrance of English Cricket which died at the Oval on 29th August 1882, deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances. RIP. NB – the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.”
A wooden cricket bail was burned (or a lady’s veil, nobody is quite sure) and placed in a small urn which was presented to Ivo Bligh, the England captain. That urn, known as ‘The Ashes’, has become the trophy for whoever wins the series of test matches between England and Australia. A series in England is about to commence.
Every test cricket series between England and Australia is keenly anticipated by both sides. Offer an English captain the choice of a World Cup Trophy or an Ashes series victory – especially in Australia, the lion’s den itself – and he would most likely choose that comically small urn.
To some, these sporting rivalries appear to be trivial. After all, what’s really at stake in a cricket match? Leather ball hits willow bat. People run between wickets. There’s an interval for tea. So what? It’s a fair question.
The clue is in the title. It’s called a ‘test match’ because that’s what it is: ‘a test’ of courage and skill over five gruelling days, often in the hot sun (even in England). We love to watch our best players perform at the highest level in front of spectators who are emotionally invested in the contest they watched with their dad as a kid. In my case, it was my mum. I can still remember a match broadcast live from Australia in 1986 for which we got up at the crack of dawn to watch. (It was the 50-over match in which Allan Lamb hit 18 off the final over to win the game for England.)
Players relish the challenge because they want to be tested. They want to use their skills under pressure when it counts. Soldiers deploying to war zones generally look forward to it. I wrote about such soldiers in my BBC sitcom, Bluestone 42, a comedy about a bomb disposal team in Afghanistan. Soldiers enjoyed the show, I’m told, because it resonated with their experiences as we sought to reflect the camaraderie of combat, and the opportunity to use skills they’d been honing in training for months and years. They wanted to get out there where the enemy is real, the ammunition is live and the game is played for keeps.
Actors don’t want to rehearse forever. Despite the nerves, they look forward to the pressure of showtime when they have to get their lines right and hit their marks, especially when performing Shakespeare at the Globe on the Southbank, not far from where the original works by the bard himself were performed.
In a society craving meaning, we want our actions to count for something. We want moments that matter played out at sacred sites of significance. Sporting fans talk of ‘hallowed turf’, just as Christians talk of holy places. The birthplace of David, the Shepherd King, is the place where the King of Kings was born. The Temple in Jerusalem is built on the same mountain where Abraham was to sacrifice his son Isaac. It was holy ground.
These impositions of meaning are not merely mental tricks imposed by the human imagination to get us through the day. They are a recognition that there is something outside of ourselves which means that the things we do, don’t just echo to the next generation but, as Maximus says in Gladiator, into eternity.
This Ashes series will end, a winner declared and then another series will be played a couple of years later with another winner. But that doesn’t make these matches meaningless. Quite the opposite. Each match and series adds weight to future tournaments where new players will face a new test. And maybe my kids will be watching with their kids and will remember where they were when England won a famous victory over the old enemy, Australia, in 2023.